I have just started training a 17 year old high school basketball athlete who is 6’ 3” and 143 pounds. He has an excellent vertical leap of 27 inches, but he is very weak, especially in the upper body. He can only complete eight proper push ups, zero pull ups, and he has the hand grip strength of an average female. As a Center, he will need to hold his position and get much tougher in order to become an outstanding player. I have four months before his tryouts. My main question is whether I should attempt a weight gain nutritional program and hypertrophy training. I tend not to be optimistic that he will gain in muscle mass at his age and with his ectomorphic body structure. If you think this attempt is prudent, can you recommend a nutritional program? Or do you think it would be more prudent to go from a general workout resistance program to a strength program? I tend to think I should simply have him eat six times a day with good foods and low glycemic index carbs and maybe supplement with bananas, rice, pasta and potatoes for the extra bulk effort.
First of all, this is not an uncommon scenario with a young athlete. Most young athletes are weak, cannot perform one pull up, cannot perform 10 push ups and are deconditioned all around. He sounds very thin, especially for his height! Still, this is not a problem. Basketball players can have a hard time gaining weight, mainly due to their high activity levels. These athletes often play on an almost daily basis for at least an hour. The constant sprinting and jumping burns tons of calories and exhausts the legs heavily.
Here are a few key movements, program design guidelines, nutritional guidelines and set/rep patterns you should follow with your athlete.
First of all, to help gain weight, this athlete must stop playing so much basketball! I suggest he continue working on skills such as dribbling and shooting but reduce his games to one per week. At 6’3” and barely 150 pounds, he reminds me of an old high school friend. The way I got him to pack on muscle quickly was to stop playing so much ball and to start eating five meals a day while strength training three times a week. Rest was a major factor to help speed up gains in muscle. And for young athletes, increasing muscle will increase strength. Increases in strength will reduce his chance of injury and improve performance.
The movements I would incorporate, along with general set/rep guidelines are:
- Push Ups (all variations: progress to feet elevated once 15 perfect push ups can be performed and then progress to adding weight with a vest or weighted back pack once 15 feet elevated push ups can be performed). Perform three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
- Bodyweight Lunges (forwards, reverse and walking). Progress to dumbbells once eight reps per leg can be performed with perfect form. Perform three sets of six to eight reps per leg.
- Bodyweight Squats (progress to holding a dumbbell, kettlebell or sandbag in the zercher position when 25 perfect reps can be performed with bodyweight). Perform three sets of six to 12 reps with weight.
- Recline Body Rows. Perform three sets of eight to 15 reps. Once 15 reps can be performed, progress to pull ups and/or chin ups for three sets of max reps per set.
- Forwards/backwards Sled Dragging. These are AWESOME for developing leg strength and improving work capacity in the lower body and overall conditioning. Perform three to four trips of anywhere from 100 to 250 feet per trip. The forward drags should receive the longer walks.
- Leg Raises (progress to leg raises while upright on dip bars). This is a very economical movement for the core and upper body. Holding the body upright works the upper body AND core simultaneously. Perform three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Once your athlete begins to show control of his body through the movements above, you can add movements such as:
- Trap Bar Deadlifts. This is an excellent full body lift and should be performed for three to five sets in the three to six rep range.
- Barbell Military Press. An upper body movement that also works the legs. Perform three to four sets in the five to eight rep range.
- Dumbbell Farmer Walks. Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells and walk them for 40 to 60 feet. Going up a slight incline will really tax the hamstrings and glutes, a key area for helping to add weight/gain muscle since they are such large muscles.
- One Arm Dumbbell Rows. Perform three to four sets of six to 10 reps per arm.
*Please note: Many, if not all, of the above exercises can be found in the PTN Exercise Library.
You can train this athlete with three full body workouts each week, but once he gets stronger and you begin utilizing free weights more, it may work well to perform upper body and lower body separately. This extra recovery is great for this type of skinny athlete.
Regarding meals and guidelines, six meals per day is tough for high school athletes, but here is a very practical method I have found works GREAT with young athletes I train. It involves five meals per day, every day at the following times: breakfast, lunch, immediately after school, dinner and late evening.
Each meal should include protein and carbs for the athlete in need of weight gain. For example, eggs and oatmeal for breakfast, two tuna sandwiches on rye or wheat bread and two pieces of fruit for lunch, pasta and chicken after school, steak, salad and potatoes for dinner and then at night some more protein and carbs (possibly left-overs from dinner). If he is hungry, he will do well drinking extra milk and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I am not a nutritionist, so please make sure before advising that you know of any food allergies, etc. And be optimistic! With proper training, this athlete can gain plenty of muscle, lean body mass, strength and confidence in only four months!
One last note on hand strength/grip training. Utilizing thick ropes for recline rows, heavy dumbbells for farmer walks and dumbbell hex holds at the end of two out of three workouts each week will improve hand strength tremendously.
In the end, the basics always bring great results, so don’t shy away from them. Make sure to prepare him appropriately before moving onto free weights!